Social media platforms have been deluged by a wave of ‘cheap fake’ posts that have made it difficult to discern fact from fiction regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to leading fact checking agencies.

The amount of misinformation (unintentionally false information) and disinformation (intentionally false information) is being compared to the high volume of ‘fake news’ during the pandemic. The accessibility of social media platforms has enabled information and therefore mis/disinformation to be easily dispersed around the world.

The flood of mis/disinformation occurred after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

During a breaking news event, everyone tends to want to share information quickly, and this is when errors creep in, creating confusion.

“Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are seeing a lot of people sharing unverified footage or photos that have been recycled from old and unrelated events. Misinformation experts call these ‘cheap fakes’,” Rachel Blundy, head of digital investigations (Asia-Pacific) at AFP (Agence France Press) told Central News.

“During a breaking news event, everyone tends to want to share information quickly, and this is when errors creep in, creating confusion.

“The only recent event we’ve covered that compares to this in terms of the amount of debunkable misinformation would be the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020.”

Between February 24 and March 3 this year Reuters has debunked 52 examples of mis/disinformation being circulated on either social or traditional media outlets – all of them pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian.

Debunked posts include lightning strikes misposted as Russian attacks, old footage of chemical explosions in China attributed as being Ukraine bombings and a fighter pilot sequence dubbed ‘the ghost of Kyiv’ purportedly showing a Ukrainian pilot shooting down Russian jets that was actually from a video game.

Anne Kruger, APAC director for First Draft, told Central News that there are ‘similarities’ between the Ukraine Crisis and the Israel-Palestine fighting in Gaza as both “include images and videos being taken out of context – some from years ago”. She added the difference was the “geo-political ramifications are wider reaching and more intense,” when it came to the Ukraine crisis.

Kruger told Central News that “when the media mistakenly uses the wrong footage, we see a pile-on from conspiracy theory groups and propaganda which pounce on this to show how the ‘mainstream media is unreliable”.

“We have seen anti-vaccination and conspiracy theory groups in Australia (particularly on alternative media platforms) use the war in an attempt to strengthen the identities of their groups – being against mainstream governments and contrarian,” she said.

“Just a final word of caution that we are not hasty with our labels, with talk of disinformation and Russia. While their tactics in the past of troll farms targeting everything from Christian websites in the US to planting fabricated think tanks, we still do take care not to sweepingly label things as ‘Russian disinformation’ until sources are clarified.”

Kruger used an example of a Twitter thread, posted by Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, which shows a video published on Telegram by the Peoples Militia of Donetsk, a group of ethnic Russia separatists in East Ukraine, claiming to be under attack by pro-Ukrainian ‘polish speaking saboteurs’. According to Higgins, the final version of the video may have had other sources of video and audio added to it.

But in such a fast paced, minute-by-minute news cycle, how can anyone discern fact from fiction? Or verified news from mis/disinformation?

“The problem with misinformation is it remains on the different platforms, which means a video or piece of information can be viewed thousands of times without ever being addressed. Echo chambers don’t help. We know that these different platforms are moderated but it’s a game of whack-a-mole. You remove one dubious claim and another will likely surface,” Stephanie Hunt, senior editor of Storyful,  told Central News.

“If you look at who is sharing misinformation, the answer is complex. It can be innocent – people feel scared, helpless, confused and want to be involved and want to inject themselves into the story, other times it’s more nefarious and very concerning.

“Always check your sources and never take a post at face value.  Do your own research, don’t be afraid to question things. There is too much misinformation out there and too many people who know how to manipulate social media.”

Kruger noted: “People go to social media sites such as TikTok for entertainment, yet they are being served unclear and even misleading information about the war.  It’s good to remember that most of these posts are there to entertain or influence – they are not there to independently inform.”

Main Image by Rodger Liang